Pre-match day the excitement starts. Enthusiasm grows hour by hour in the anticipation of pulling on your teams football kit. Thinking about scoring that goal, thinking about making that save, perhaps thinking about making that Lionel Messi dribble with the ball and setting up your teammates to smash the ball in to the back of the net.
Match day arrives, the kit goes on, shin pads and boots put on, laces tied. You walk onto the grass with adrenaline building.
You’re feeling up beat with your friends around you.
You look at the opposition your about to face.
The referee walks to the centre with the ball.
You glance at mum or dad, gran or granddad – and see all the spectators on the side-lines looking forward to what will happen next.
You take a deep breath.
The whistle blows. Kick off is taken…
However, unfortunately on some occasions, the “Relative Age Effect” kicks off at the same time.
So what is the relative Age Effect?
“Many sports use the academic year (1 September to 31 August) as the registration dates for entry into school, community, governing body talent pathways, and some professional competitions within the UK.
However, this structure still leads to some children being almost one year older than others within the same annual-age group (e.g. a September birth compared to an August birth). This difference in age within an annual-age group is defined as relative age, with the consequences being the Relative Age Effect.
The Relative Age Effect results in participation and selection differences favouring the relatively older participants and occurs in most youth sports, including football, rugby league, rugby union, basketball and tennis (Cobley et al, 2009). This means that a greater number of players born closer to the ‘cut-off’ date of 1 September participate and are selected for teams, clubs and competitions”.
- Sports Coach UK
The Relative Age Effect brings some massive challenges to some younger participants especially in invasive team sports.
Locally, where coaches from different clubs liaise to arrange development fixtures for our Minis Sections, plans are in place in an effort to ensure all games are competitive, on occasions though this proves difficult.
Week on week all over the country we see over exuberant scores lines in favour of one team filtering through the news, media, website and general chit chat amongst spectators. Usually this is to promote how proud people are of the club, their players, or indeed their children.
However, the impact of the team that has been defeated by such a heavy score line can be demoralising, and even worse have a long term effect on the child if the situation is not managed in the appropriate manner. For example being used as an opportunity to educate, to positively influence and to overcome adversity – essentially to start the building blocks and foundation of a much needed life skill that will be used more and more throughout adolescence and adult life.
When these ‘mismatches in stature’ do occur it can be very difficult to witness; to coach; and even more so from a young child’s perspective to play in.
As an experienced Grass Roots coach, I am aware of and understand that those without a coaching background may not take The Relative Age Effect into consideration or indeed be aware of what it is.
Through continual coach education and development we learn that although players might be in the same school year, the birth bias of players being born in Sept, Oct and Nov will mean most of the time that their ability is perceived by the untrained eye to be higher than those born later in the school year in Jun, July, Aug.
It is my opinion that any coach working with young children and adolescence’s in sport should be observing, recognising and coaching the individual’s needs at their specific stage of development of learning the game.
Players should not be grouped together where consideration is solely based on the child’s School Year, but actually with deeper thinking around the “Quarter” of the School year that the child is born in (Q1 Sept, Oct, Nov Q2 Dec, Jan, Feb Q3 Mar, Apr, May Q4 Jun, Jul, Aug) in addition to where the players actual stage of development sits at the current time.
This means that some players in School Year 2 and born in Q1, may have the ability to play up with players in School Year 3 born in Q3 or Q4.
And vice versa, it may be appropriate in order for players to develop born in School Year 4 - Q4, to play with players in School Year 3 Q1 and Q2.
Simply put the older players within the same school year in some cases have been on the planet almost 12 months longer than the younger players, so of course most will be a little more advanced (at this stage) due to having more life experience.
I truly believe that it is important that all Parents, Grandparents, Aunties, Uncles and other people that can influence young people in sport should to be aware of the relative age effect and should have a basic knowledge and understanding of it as this can have a huge impact as to how your support your child grow within the sport.
In my experience, you can have the peace of mind that although some challenges prove to difficult during the mismatches right now, that in the future the physical different does close during the adolescent years. Essentially at this stage the gap is bridged between the younger players in the group with the older players through maturation and growth and indeed the more proficient technical players with good decision making skills and game sense begin to excel.
If the challenge is inappropriate and the competitive edge to the game is no longer there, what can we do?
Essentially in an attempt to make the game more competitive try additional players being put on for one team or a player being taken off for the other. This should be completed discreetly – it’s not really important to flag this up to anyone else but it is important to try and make the game better for the players.
If that is unsuccessful, then it is extremely important on how we manage and reflect with our players after the game has ended. And by “we” I mean both coaches and the support network around the child.
It is vital that young players receive the same positive messages from parents at home as well as from the coaching staff. This can only reinforce their continued learning and positive development not only as a player, but also as a young person.